Further to the article posted on the 23 March , further intense engagement and written exchanges have continued between Trade Union Side and HR. The protective “Work from Home where you can” message from the NI Executive has remained in place in NI, as reinforced by the Health Minister to date. NIPSA’s position on the RTW transition plan has therefore remained consistent, as set out in my previous Bulletin. It is worth noting that other public sector Employers, including the NICS, who had intended to commence the introduction of hybrid working policies and phased return to workplaces, postponed doing so in April due to the continued WFH health message in NI.

TUS recognises and applauds the courage and tenacity of those in Housing Services and other areas where members have already commenced their RTW due to the nature of their functions. Should any issues arise, we would encourage you to raise them with your line management in the first instance as soon as you can so that appropriate mitigation can be taken to protect you and your colleagues. Where that fails, your Branch Committee will be happy to assist.

We have been very clear with your Employer that only those staff who cannot fulfil their duties from home should be asked to commence a phased return to workplaces. This should facilitate greater protection for those members who must attend the workplace to perform their functions. Remember, this is a phased return during the transition period, the details of which should be agreed between yourself and your line manager during 1 to 1 meetings PRIOR TO you commencing any phased return. If you cannot reach agreement with your line manager, you can escalate to a higher grade and ultimately utilise the formal grievance process, if necessary, to ensure that your concerns and individual circumstances can be fully taken into account in the decision making process. This is your opportunity to begin your conversation with Management about different ways of working during the transition period and beyond, helping a “new normal” to evolve which maximises flexibility and recognises both your needs and those of the NIHE.

Members who are Clinically Extremely Vulnerable or pregnant should continue to be facilitated to work from home, where they wish to do so. Both these categories and anyone who has a health condition that renders them Clinically Vulnerable to serious illness from Covid-19 is entitled to an individual risk assessment, which should again be completed and action plans agreed and implemented prior to returning to your workplace.

NIPSA recognises and broadly welcomes the NIHE Staff News circulated to all staff earlier this week, which makes clear that your Employer will continue to keep in place measures to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19 and other contagious viruses such as Rhinovirus. Such measures include the continuation of 2 metres’ social distancing throughout workplaces, the continued wearing of face coverings, regular testing using the Lateral Flow Device test kits being provided by NIHE, maximum 50% attendance in any workplace (this can be less according to Covid-19 specific risk assessments of buildings/floors/sections) to facilitate quality air flow and social distancing, use of CO2 monitors to check air quality and put in place action plans should any concerns arise and maximum regular ventilation of workplaces to ensure improved air quality. If you have any concerns about returning to the workplace, either before or following the commencement of your phased return, please do not hesitate to raise them with your line manager. Your NIPSA Branch representative is available to provide specific advice, where needed, and if collective concerns remain unresolved and are raised via NIPSA Branch structures, please be assured that they can be escalated to TUS and pursued with HR.

One such concern which has already been raised collectively by TUS is the apparent lack of consistency of the application of flexi-time. This has been queried with HR and TUS has been reassured that flexi-time continues to be available to those who wish to avail of it, regardless of work location.

Another useful and pragmatic agreement reached with the Director of HR is that if you are feeling ill, particularly if you are Covid symptomatic, you should not attend the workplace, in order to protect your own health and the health of your colleagues. NIPSA has already raised the necessity for the NIHE to review its Policies and Procedures to ensure that members who are ill should not be punished for taking personal responsibility by staying away from the workplace and therefore protecting colleagues.

TUS has repeatedly raised specific concerns over the return of members to Lanyon Place. We have sought clarification of the future intentions of the Employer in regard to the potential leasing of alternative buildings, cognisant of the many air quality concerns already well-rehearsed, which is awaited.

We have also signalled concerns that members may have difficulties attending the workplace during the anticipated strike across Translink and the further strike action recently announced by Unite for two weeks after Easter which may also impact upon school transport. Members already struggling with the soaring cost of living, which is increasingly negatively impacting our standards of living in so many ways, may simply have no other option other than to work from home during these periods. We have asked HR to consider this situation with empathy, and communicate to staff to ensure this further pressure does not increase members’ stress and anxiety at an already difficult time on so many levels.

With regard to the NIHE Pay and Grading Review, members will be aware that this issue arose almost 4 years ago. Throughout this time, NIPSA has been attempting to meaningfully engage with HR to ensure the best interests of members remained front and centre of the Review. As you may be aware, The NIHE tabled a Business case to its sponsoring Department for Communities seeking funding approval for review proposals. TUS has been doing everything possible to have the proposals disclosed for discussion to facilitate implementation negotiations to commence, but this has not happened to date. TUS has reiterated many times that this situation is unacceptable to members and has recently put your Employer on notice that, should the NIHE continue to refuse to table proposals to TUS beyond the end of this month, that NIPSA will be lodging a dispute on the grounds of Management Side breaching the terms of the JCNC constitution, which are the rules of engagement agreed between the trade union and your Employer. We hope that pay and grading proposals can be tabled without further delay and we can progress the review to completion and implementation as soon as possible.

Kim Graham
Assistant Secretary